Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Chapter 7:

Among the many factors influencing the management of North Cascades, hydropower commands, perhaps, the greatest attention. Hydroelectric projects literally have shaped the landscape of the park and created an array of management issues. In the late 1920s, for example, a hydroelectric dam raised the level of the picturesque Lake Chelan, and in the late 1950s, a similar project on the Baker River, which rises in the park's high country, formed the modern Baker Lake just west of the park. In both cases, the hydroelectric operations lie outside the boundaries of the parkland but their manipulation of the level of the lakes for power production has potential consequences inside the park, ranging from shoreline erosion to the destruction of fish populations. Nature, and indeed altered nature, knows no boundaries.

The true centerpiece of hydroelectric power in North Cascades, however, is Seattle City Light's Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Located in Ross Lake National Recreation Area (NRA), the project's three dams -- Gorge, Diablo, and Ross -- harness power from the Skagit and form a chain of emerald green lakes that bear their names. Dealing with Seattle City Light and its plans to expand its power production proved to be one of the most contentious episodes in the history of the new park. Although City Light had a number of proposals to construct new dams, the utility's main focus was increasing the height of Ross Dam, and thus the High Ross project, as it came to be known, became the most volatile and contested issue of the day. [] In short, it became a defining issue in how the Park Service would deal with its largest and most powerful tenant and, in turn, manage Ross Lake NRA.

In the late 1960s, Seattle City Light moved forward with its plans to increase the height of Ross Dam. The High Ross project would have raised the level of Ross Lake flooding miles of shoreline within Ross Lake NRA and flooding most of the Skagit River Valley in British Columbia. [2] Raising the dam, completed in 1949, had been in City Light's original plans, as a means to increase power production for a growing metropolitan area. In 1942, the International Joint Commission approved of the city's project and the city had signed an agreement with British Columbia officials to compensate the province for damages. But in the early 1950s, British Columbia tried to back out of the agreement, stalling the project. In the 1960s, the movement to establish North Cascades National Park further threatened the project. In 1967, however, City Light had reached an agreement with Canada, which evidently allowed it to flood Canada, and the legislation creating North Cascades in 1968 assured the utility that the Park Service would not interfere with its plans. Although the city's way to completing its project seemed clear, environmentalists on both sides of the border rose up in opposition. They contended that High Ross would destroy the free-flowing Canadian Skagit, fish populations, wildlife habitat, and more of the northern Cascades' wild country. The government of British Columbia joined in to fight the project on environmental as well as legal grounds, asserting that Seattle could not adequately compensate the province for the loss of its valley.

Complex and contentious, the High Ross controversy dragged on into the early 1980s. By this time, the two government bodies responsible for settling such matters, the Federal Power Commission (FPC) and the International Joint Commission (IJC), had ruled in favor of Seattle City Light. That is, the FPC approved the amendment to City Light's license (needed to raise Ross Dam), and the IJC determined that City Light's legal right to flood Canada was valid, based on the 1967 agreement. Furthermore, neither one believed that the environmental consequences were significant enough to stop the project.

At the same time, however, the IJC preferred that Seattle and British Columbia negotiate a settlement. Popular sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of protecting the wild lands of the northern Cascades and upper Skagit Valley. Although Seattle maintained it had the legal right to flood the upper Skagit Valley, it eventually agreed to seek a negotiated settlement, especially in the highly charged environmental politics of the period. Recent events such as the default of the Washington Public Power Supply System and the passage of the Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act had damaged the image of public power and placed a greater emphasis on energy conservation. As a result, City Light's argument for raising the dam -- for peaking power in winter months -- lost its vigor. More importantly, the issue had become an international incident of sorts. At one point, B.C. protesters lined the remote U.S.-Canada border at the northern edge of Ross Lake to save the upper Skagit Valley from "Yankee oppression." Thus, in 1984, more for diplomatic and political than environmental reasons, the two sides signed a treaty in which British Columbia would compensate Seattle with power comparable to what would have been generated by High Ross in return for the city suspending the project. [3]

The High Ross affair's status as an environmental issue of international proportions has obscured one major point: The raising of the dam was to take place within a unit of the American national park system. Curiously enough, Ross Lake NRA shared its border with British Columbia and would, in the end, benefit from that relationship. That is, the resolution prevented the recreation area from being flooded, and one might say, Canada saved Ross Lake NRA for the American public albeit indirectly. What role did the Park Service play? After all, it was the agency directly responsible for the area's protection.

The Park Service's role in the controversy reveals that it underwent the same change of heart as many Americans about dams. This was a period of some twenty years when changing times and values revised the image of dams from symbols of progress to symbols of ecological disaster. This popular reorientation evolved on both sides of the border and brought the High Ross project to a halt. [4] It would influence how park managers viewed their role in managing the recreation area. Although Ross Lake was artificially created, the Park Service ultimately regarded the protection of its natural environment as its primary purpose. The agency arrived at this position, however, slowly. Its approach to managing recreation areas presented something of a dam dilemma. Should they be managed for development or preservation? The agency's position on this was unclear initially; the legislation governing the recreation area was confusing, and faced with political pressure to both protect and develop Ross Lake, the agency seemed uncertain about the management direction it should take.

It appeared that British Columbia would play a greater role in protecting a parkland in another country than the agency assigned to that task. The reason for this, in part, lies in the Park Service's strange relationship with dams. Originally, the agency protected the nation's premier natural areas. The agency's creation in 1916, in fact, had been precipitated by the recent damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. But during the 1930s, it began to manage reservoirs created by other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation. Taking over the management of recreation areas (like Lake Mead, the first) was part of the agency's expansion during the New Deal. It increased the Park Service's chances of survival in the government's reorganization by giving it the lead role in recreational planning and development for the nation. It was a move, critics argued, that distracted the agency from its true mission and opened the door to the proposed damming of Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument -- the Hetch Hetchy of the 1950s. [5]

The evolution of the Park Service's management of parks and recreation areas is illustrated well in the northern Cascades. For the first time, a national park and two recreation areas were under one administration. What most accounts of the High Ross affair fail to appreciate is that all three areas function as an interrelated whole, and thus they tend to isolate Ross Lake from its larger setting. But in reality, what happens to it affects the half-million acre national park, the dominant feature of this region, particularly because the recreation area roughly bisects the park.

Besides its administrative function, the park complex represented a significant victory in wilderness preservation in the postwar era. But the new parkland's establishment represented the concessions necessary to achieve that victory. One of the many political compromises leading to the creation of North Cascades was that law makers drew the boundaries around Ross Lake to accommodate High Ross. (This, of course, was in addition to other proposed projects such as the one on Thunder Creek that influenced the recreation area's boundaries.) Moreover, law makers retained the FPC's authority over hydroelectric projects in the recreation area's legislation and thus prevented the Park Service from interfering with High Ross. [6]

What, one might ask, was Congress thinking? Had it forgotten the public outcry over the loss of Hetch Hetchy or the more recent but thwarted attempts to dam Dinosaur or the Grand Canyon? Apparently, Congress reasoned that the rising waters would not submerge any lands within a national park, and therefore would not violate the sanctity of a national park. [7] The law makers, of course, had miscalculated at a time of heightened environmental awareness in which dams had become the equivalent of environmental sin. Groups like the Sierra Club and North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C), among the most active in the North Cascades campaign, fought the project because the loss of any more wild lands, whether in a park or recreation area, was unacceptable. In their minds, this isolated, man-made lake, set in a jumble of precipitous, glacier-clad peaks, possessed the scenic qualities and unique natural wonders of a national park and deserved similar protection. For them, wilderness persisted even around a reservoir, and they argued that the legislation had wrongfully omitted several scenic wilderness valleys from the park, such as Big Beaver, out of deference to the High Ross project. [8]

Throughout most of the High Ross controversy, however, the Park Service seemed unresponsive to these views. To be sure, the agency found itself constricted by law and forced into neutrality on the issue, but it was also reluctant to assert itself in the protection of Ross Lake's natural values. This hesitancy reveals another reason for the agency's role in the High Ross affair. Besides the strange relationship with dams, there were the paradoxes associated with national park management. The management philosophy of preservation and use, now familiar in the annals of national park history, increased popular support for parks but all too often at the expense of the their natural conditions. Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the agency had adopted a management policy based more on ecological principles, its ability to break with tradition was uneven at best. [9]

If the agency's commitment to preservation of national parks has seemed at times ambiguous, its management of national recreation areas has raised even more doubts. Recreation areas were the second cousins of parks. The public's expectations of the agency, regardless of what kind of area it managed, were high; it cared for the nation's parks and should treat anything else under its jurisdiction with similar respect. In 1964, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall attempted to clarify the distinction between areas under the Park Service's jurisdiction. He separated them into three management categories, natural, historical, and recreational, each with its own management concept and administrative policies. In doing so, he affirmed recreation areas' lower stature. In a recreation area, a wide variety of uses, such as fishing, hunting, boating, timber harvesting, and mining, were acceptable with certain provisions. While this policy recognized the expansion in outdoor recreation in the nation and the addition of nontraditional parklands like national seashores, it made the protection of the natural environment a secondary priority. In these areas, the agency only had to present a "pleasing environment" to the public. [10]

The recreation policy manual, in an attempt to clarify intent, left a great deal of the area's actual management open to interpretation. Management was based on the recreation area's enabling legislation, the fuzziness of congressional intent, and the Park Service's own ambiguous management philosophy. In seemingly concrete language, the legislation for Ross Lake NRA stated that its purpose was to "provide for public outdoor recreation" and protection of the area's "other values" was only important insofar as it contributed "to the public enjoyment" of the area. [11] The most important information regarding the recreation area's management did not appear in the legislation but in a statement by Secretary Udall during the 1967 Senate hearings on the North Cascades bill. Udall, in short, declared that the "basic reasons" for creating Ross Lake NRA were to permit High Ross and a broader range of recreational activities than "normally the custom within a National Park." [12]

Although it seemed that Ross Lake NRA was officially approved for liberal uses, similar to a national forest, each group with an interest in the area's management interpreted its purpose differently, and in turn created further management conflicts and controversy. Preservationists, for example, believed High Ross was a political birthmark in the park's creation, something it would grow out of later. In their view, the purpose of North Cascades was wilderness preservation; the decade-long, bitter struggle to create the area had proven that. And they criticized the Park Service for excluding the project area from its wilderness designations covering the entire park and portions of the recreation areas. [13]

For its part, Seattle City Light was unwavering in its own literal interpretation of Udall's statement, treating it as the central purpose of the recreation area and one of its justifications for pressing forward with the project. Nationally renowned as a successful public utility, City Light tended to see engineered nature as just as valuable as wilderness, and implied after the park's establishment that it had "created" the recreation area by making the Skagit Valley's wilderness "usable." High Ross would only create more "usable wilderness," enhancing rather than interfering with the Park Service's management of the recreation area. [14]

In either case, Congress' intent was purposefully vague. High Ross was a political expedient, something Washington's Senator Henry M. Jackson agreed to in order to accomplish the larger goal of creating the park. By withdrawing High Ross from the proposed park's boundaries, Jackson eliminated one of the many road blocks to the park complex's creation; it was a compromise that left the final decision on the project up to the FPC and not Congress. Though it may have appeared he was granting his approval of the project, the veteran politician knew that in the current political climate City Light faced a stiff challenge from environmentalists. [15]

Confronted with these differing views, the Park Service fell back on its standard approach to conflict. It tried to please everyone. Throughout its history, the agency depended on public opinion and federal appropriations for its survival. In short, its management decisions have at times seemed more concerned with achieving popularity than taking a hard-nosed stance in protecting biological resources. Its approach to managing Ross Lake NRA, at least for most of the 1970s, did not focus on protecting the recreation area's natural values. This was a highly controversial topic during the FPC's licensing process and the 1974 hearings. Maintaining its neutrality, the agency let others come to the defense of the Big Beaver Valley's "cathedral of trees" and what forest ecologists testified was an irreplaceable laboratory of nature; it was one of the most ecologically significant sites in western Washington for studying a bottom-land boggy cedar environment. [16]

Instead, the agency embarked on a program for developing Ross Lake for recreation. This after all was the area's primary mission. It was also a program for which the Park Service could count on strong political support. Perhaps most confusing about this approach was the agency's conceptualization of the recreation area as a "wilderness threshold." A staging area at the edge of the park's wilderness, it would introduce visitors to the "mood and temper of the wild country" beyond. [17] This meant that the recreation areas (in the park complex) would be the focus of visitor services and developments, removing traditional park development pressures from the park itself. [18]

But rather than eliminating development conflicts, this strategy merely transferred them from one area to another. As preservationists discovered, wilderness threshold seemed to be a euphemism for large-scale development. They pointed to the agency's plans for tramways, large-scale development at Roland Point on Ross Lake, and a road to Roland Point from Highway 20 as evidence. The immediate issue at hand was one that has affected all parks historically -- access. Access, along with the agency's strange relationship with dams and management paradoxes, further illustrates why the agency seemed to hesitate when it came to protecting the area's natural environment. Without the Roland Point project, there would be no highway access to the southern end of Ross Lake.

The Roland Point road and lake shore development were eventually shelved, due to prohibitive costs, environmental impacts, and opposition from preservationists. But political pressure for something similar remained and led to perhaps the strangest event of all. The National Park Service endorsed the High Ross project. The main reason for this was that while it could not afford financially, environmentally, or politically to build a road to or provide services on the lake itself, it could get City Light to provide virtually the same thing as part of its construction of High Ross. The agency could make such a request as part of the licensing process for High Ross (otherwise known as Exhibit R). It was one of few areas the agency actually had any control over in this stage of the licensing process. [19]

By doing so, the agency solved its access problem. But it created another one in the process. By promoting High Ross, albeit as a planning alternative, the agency appeared to be on the verge of the inconceivable, turning back a century of national park preservation. That the dam was in a recreation area did not matter, for it was the agency charged with protecting the nation's parks that had made the decision. In order to bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the shores of Ross Lake, national park managers were willing to concede the loss of Big Beaver Valley and the lake's other natural values. In doing so, they would fulfill the area's purpose and what was interpreted as Congress' intent -- to make the lake reasonably accessible for water-oriented recreation. All this to save park visitors the drive through Canada.

Condemning as this sounds, the Park Service's position was, once again, not entirely clear. During the 1974 FPC hearings, former Secretary of the Interior Udall testimony's cast doubt on the Park Service's position. Udall testified that the High Ross exemption had indeed been a political expedient and that he believed personally that the project should not go forward because of the environmental and scenic damage it would cause. Then, shortly after it endorsed High Ross, the Park Service began to back-pedal and shifted its emphasis to the protection of the recreation area's biological resources. When the Federal Power Commission released its initial approval of High Ross in 1976, North Cascades park managers petitioned the Department of the Interior to intervene before a final license was issued. Their reason for intervention concerned the loss of natural resources in the recreation area -- Big Beaver's ancient trees, beaver ponds, cutthroat trout spawning grounds, and scenic attractions such as waterfalls, high bluffs, and rock outcroppings. They did not mention recreational developments. [20]

The agency's request had little effect on the licensing process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which replaced the FPC) approved City Light's amended license to raise Ross Dam in 1977. Afterwards, a coalition of environmental groups (both American and Canadian), the U.S. Department of the Interior, and a number of affected Indian tribes (Upper Skagit Tribe, Swinomish Tribal Community, and Sauk-Suiattle Tribe) requested a rehearing. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted the new hearing, it issued its final approval of the amended license in August 1978. And even though environmentalists, led by N3C and the British Columbia-based Run Out Skagit Spoilers (ROSS), appealed the decision to the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980, the court upheld the decision, bringing the legal suits against the amended license to a close.

Nevertheless, the Park Service's role in this process demonstrated that its emphasis had changed in the management of national recreation areas. The preservation of natural values was now its greatest concern. This happened, one might say, because the environmental movement finally had caught up with the Park Service. This new emphasis grew out of numerous environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), and more specifically out of amendments to the Park Service's Organic Act in 1970 and 1978. These revisions, among other things, asserted that the agency's mission statement applied to all park units, including recreation areas, and affirmed that only Congress could authorize activities that might impair the values and purposes for which an area of the national park system was established. In other words, Congress determined that the agency's management categories had weakened rather than strengthened the park system from internal as well as external threats. The system, according to Congress, should be managed as an integrated whole. More important, all areas within the park system should be managed with the same regard as national parks. Thus, the service abandoned the separate management categories in the late 1970s and at least in theory began treating Ross Lake NRA as a national park. [21]

The most striking example of this was the Park Service's control over access to the dam site. Rather than supporting High Ross, now agency officials "unofficially" blocked the project with a special use permit. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Seattle City Light anxiously attempted to complete the final phase of Ross Dam, after it appeared the utility had won approval and before British Columbia could get the IJC to hear its case again. (B.C. was contesting not only the 1967 agreement but also the 1942 Order in Council which had precipitated much of this controversy.) And thus for a brief moment the only thing that stood between the dam and its completion was the permit itself. The permit would have allowed City Light to build a construction road across a small section of Park Service land from Highway 20 down to the dam. In return for that permit, the agency required three things: 1) that the legal suits against its license be resolved, 2) that it settle its differences with British Columbia, and 3) that it complete an environmental assessment of the road's construction. Officially, the agency claimed that these provisions were only practical; without the first two there would be no reason to build the road at all. Unofficially, it was stalling the project, in effect holding it hostage, while British Columbia continued to contest Seattle's authority to flood the Skagit Valley before the IJC. [22]

However progressive and assertive the Park Service had become in the protection of Ross Lake, it could only delay but not prevent or openly resist High Ross. It was serendipitous, then, that British Columbia contested Seattle's right to flood the upper Skagit Valley in the early 1980s. The complicated 1984 agreement between Seattle and British Columbia ended a twenty-year struggle of what City Light called a seemingly "irreconcilable issue." [23] And the accompanying treaty between the United States and Canada removed an "environmental irritant" between the two countries at a time when environmental issues, such as acid rain in the Great Lakes region, were creating tensions along the borderland. [24]

Yet what has often been under-appreciated in this larger arena was that the agreement helped save an American parkland. This was an important turn of events, especially since at first the National Park Service seemed intent on developing the recreation area and supporting High Ross. In time, the agency solved its dam dilemma, but only after groping toward a policy position that would assure the protection of the recreation area's natural environment. In the end, the Park Service's approach to protecting Ross Lake NRA's natural values would not have been possible without British Columbia's persistent opposition to Seattle City Light's plans. The treaty has forged a relationship between Canada and the America public, and thus the National Park Service, in the protection of Ross Lake. The treaty is only a "paper dam," good through 2066, and thus Canada still controls the future of Ross Lake, for should it terminate its agreement, Seattle could, theoretically, build High Ross. The treaty further bonded the two countries in the protection of this parkland by establishing the Skagit Environmental Endowment Fund of $5 million for the enhancement of recreational opportunities in, and environmental protection of, the area above Ross Dam. The fund would be administered by a joint commission, known as the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission. The relationship fostered through the commission and fund, like Canada's role in protecting Ross Lake, was an unintended consequence. It suggests another aspect to our understanding of this international controversy, and that protecting national parks can come from unexpected sources and in indirect ways. [25]


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the High Ross resolution and the Park Service's new management approach to Ross Lake represented a significant stage in the park complex's history. In the near future, park managers would look to implement plans delayed by the controversy or to move forward with new ones. Likewise, resource management concerns would be approached in a similar fashion. But all was not finished with City Light, and a major undertaking awaited park managers. In 1977, City Light's license for the entire Skagit River project had expired. The High Ross affair, however, delayed relicensing until the mid-1980s. Although perhaps more complex and contentious than High Ross, as many agency officials were coming to realize, relicensing would offer new ways of interacting with City Light, especially in the protection of Ross Lake NRA's natural values.

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999